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The first-known inhabitants of England were small bands of hunters, but Stone Age immigrants arrived around 4000 BC and farmed the chalk hills of Salisbury Plain, constructing the mysterious stone circles at Stonehenge and Avebury. They were followed by the Bronze Age Celts from Central Europe who began arriving in 800 BC, bringing the Gaelic and Brythonic languages (the former is still spoken in Scotland, the latter in Wales).

The Romans invaded in 43 AD and took only seven years to quell resistance and control most of England. The Scottish and Welsh tribes were more of a problem, resulting in the building of Hadrian's Wall across northern England to keep out the marauding Scots. The Romans brought stability, nice and straight paved roads and Christianity; in return, the Brits gave the Romans a headache and a dent in the empire's expense account. The Romans were never defeated, they just sort of faded away around 410 AD as their empire declined.

Tribes of heathen Angles, Jutes and Saxons began to move into the vacuum, absorbing the Celts, and local fiefdoms developed. By the 7th century, these fiefdoms had grown into a series of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms which had come to collectively think of themselves as English. By the mid-9th century, Vikings had invaded northern Scotland, Cumbria and Lancashire and the Danes were making inroads into eastern England. By 871, only Wessex - the half-Saxon, half-Celtic country south of the Thames - was under English control. At this low point, the English managed to neutralise the Vikings' military superiority and began a process of assimilation.

The next invader was William of Normandy (soon to become known as William the Conqueror), who arrived on the south coast of England in 1066 with a force of 12,000 men. After victory at the Battle of Hastings, he replaced English aristocrats with French-speaking Normans. The Normans built impressive castles, imposed a feudal system, administered a census and, once again, began to assimilate with the Saxons.

The next centuries saw a series of royal tiffs, political intrigues, plague, unrest and revolt. The Hundred Years War with France blurred into the domestic War of the Roses and enough Machiavellian backstabbing among royalty to make the present foibles of the monarchy seem even more trifling than they already are. In the 16th century, Henry VIII's matrimonial difficulties led to the split with Catholicism. Henry was appointed head of the Church of England by the English Parliament and the Bible was translated into English. In 1536, Henry dissolved the smaller monasteries and confiscated their land as the relationship between Church and State hit rocky times.

The power struggle between monarchy and Parliament degenerated into civil war in the mid-17th century, pitching Charles I's royalists (Catholics, traditionalists, the gentry and members of the Church of England) against Cromwell's Protestant parliamentarians. Cromwell's victory segued into a dictatorship, which included a bloody rampage through Ireland, and by 1660 Parliament was so fed up that it reinstated the monarchy.

A period of progressive expansionism followed, as England collected colonies down the American coast, licensed the East India Company to operate from Bombay and eventually saw Canada and Australia come within its massive sphere of influence. At home, England exerted increasing control over the British Isles. The burgeoning empire's first setback occurred in 1781 when the American colonies won their war of independence.

Meanwhile, Britain was fast becoming the crucible of the Industrial Revolution as steam power, steam trains, coal mines and water power began to transform the means of transport and production. The world's first industrial cities sprung up in the Midlands, causing severe dislocation of the population. By the time Queen Victoria took the throne in 1837, Britain had become the world's greatest power. Its fleet dominated the seas, knitting together the British empire, while its factories dominated world trade. Under prime ministers such as Gladstone and Disraeli, the worst excesses of the Industrial Revolution were addressed; education became universal, trade unions were legalised and most men were enfranchised - women had to wait until after WWI.

Britain bumbled into the stalemate of WWI in 1914, resulting in the senseless slaughter of a million Britons and a widening gulf between the ruling and working classes. The latter set the stage for 50 years of labour unrest, beginning with the 1926 Great Strike and growing throughout the 1930s depression. Britain dithered through the 1920s and '30s, with mediocre and visionless government, which failed to confront the problems the country faced - including the rise of Hitler and imperial Germany.

Britain's never-say-die character was forged in WWII under the guidance of Winston Churchill. Britain bounced back from Dunkirk, the relentless Luftwaffe air raids and the fall of Singapore and Hong Kong to win the Battle of Britain and play a vital role in the Allied victory. Despite the euphoria, Britain's resources and influence were exhausted and its empire declined as first India (1947), then Malaysia (1957) and Kenya (1963) gained their independence.

It took until the 1960s for wartime recovery to be fully completed, but by then Britons had supposedly 'never had it so good', according to their prime minister, Harold Macmillan. The sixties briefly repositioned swinging London back at the cultural heart of the world, as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Mary Quant, David Bailey, Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton and Co strutted their stuff on the world stage. But the sixties weren't all mini skirts and Sergeant Pepper: factionalism in Northern Ireland became overtly violent, leading to the deployment of British troops in 1969. The Troubles, as they are euphemistically known, have been dogging the British and Irish governments and ruining Northern Ireland ever since. The 1970s' oil crisis, massive inflation, the three-day working week and class antagonism also brought reality crashing into the party, and in 1979 the Brits elected matronly Margaret Thatcher to come and mop up their mess for them.

Thatcher broke the unions, privatised national industries, established a meritocracy, sent a flotilla to the Falklands and polarised British society. She became the longest-serving prime minister this century and left such a deep mark on the Brits that even now, going on for a decade after she was dumped by her political party, Baroness Maggie looms large over any discussion of domestic affairs. The ever-so-nice John Major, PM from 1990, failed to rally the nation to the Conservative cause, and was booted out in no uncertain terms in elections in May 1997.

England under PM Tony Blair is a changing place. Asylum seekers, farming, education, health, Northern Ireland and the European Union still polarize opinion, but cautious optimism prevails. How England responds to the increasingly assertive nationalities of Scotland and Wales, and to the changes caused by closer interaction with Europe, will be primary factors in the future identity of the country.


England's greatest artistic contributions have come in the fields of theatre, literature and architecture. The country is also, right or wrong, a treasure house of art and sculpture, from every age and continent. Most visitors are overwhelmed by the stately homes of the aristocracy, and England's fine collection of castles and cathedrals. Though motorways, high rise and tawdry suburban development characterize England's 20th century architectural heritage, modern architects like Sir Norman Foster and Richard Rodgers are creating dramatic and innovative structures like the Tate Modern, Millennium Bridge and Lloyds of London building.

Anyone who has studied English literature at school will remember ploughing through Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens and Morrissey, and painful though it might have been at the time, no-one can deny England's formidable contribution to the Western literary canon.

Perhaps England's greatest cultural export has been the English language, the current lingua franca of the international community. There are astonishing regional variations in accents, and it is not unusual to find those in southern England claiming to need an interpreter to speak to anyone living north of Oxford.

The majority of English who profess religious beliefs belong to the Church of England, which became independent of Rome in the 16th century. Other significant protestant churches include Methodist, Baptist and Salvation Army. One in 10 Britons consider themselves Catholic, and there are now over a million Muslims and sizeable Hindu, Jewish and Sikh populations. Despite this variety of religions, most English are fonder of their churches as architectural icons of grandeur and stability than as houses of religious piety.

Though England is not famous for the quality of its cuisine, London's recent renaissance in quality is spreading to the provinces. Travellers will find a remarkable variety of dining options from all over the world, though those on a budget should be wary of overdosing on fish 'n' chips, eggs 'n' bacon, and sausages 'n' mash.

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